Do you know someone who appears to be an unshakably strong person—someone who can cope with just about anything that life throws at them, who can gracefully cope with stressful and tragic events, such as devastating disease, divorce, the death of loved ones, natural and man-made disasters?
Often, others who experience hardship lean on this person, who will gladly offer a shoulder to cry on and good advice. And frequently, such persons perform distinguished services in their communities, as teachers, politicians, religious leaders, or in similar roles.
Such persons have what psychologists call “emotional resilience.” In a nutshell, people who are resilient can deal with both minor and major stressors more effectively. They have the personal skills to accept themselves for who they are, to regulate their emotions, manage their anxieties, think analytically, and solve problems. They have the social skills to maintain positive relationships over the long term and to practice empathy, but they also know how to say “no” when someone oversteps their boundaries. They have the life skills to manage stress, resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner, and keep a good work-life balance.
The American Psychological Association defines the concept of “emotional resilience” in the following way: “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
Over the past decades, much new and exciting research has been done in the field of resilience, about the underlying physiology, as well as theoretical and applied psychology. In the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, psychiatrists Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney examine the topic from many different angles, based on their own two-decade-long psychological and neurobiological research. They insist that resilience is a “complex product of genetic, psychological, biological, social and spiritual factors,” and therefore needs to be investigated from multiple scientific perspectives.
According to Southwick and Charney, many different neurobiological systems influence how resilient you are. If your sympathetic nervous system is well regulated—that is, if it responds quickly to danger, but also shuts down rapidly once that danger has passed—you are better able to deal with stress. If your dopamine reward system functions well, it can provide positive emotions even in times of chronic stress and keep you going.
If your hippocampus is intact (and if its neurons are not damaged by an onslaught of the stress hormone cortisol), it can properly differentiate between safe and dangerous environments and regulate your responses to different stimuli. If your prefrontal cortex is highly developed, it will properly regulate your emotions and behaviors in the face of unpleasant and painful situations.
How all of these systems work together determines whether your biological response to danger and stress is too strong, not strong enough, or just right.
Your genes do, of course, play a role in the functioning of these neurobiological systems. Research on identical twins in which only one had been exposed to trauma has led to the estimation that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is determined about 35 percent by genetic make-up and approximately 65 percent by environmental factors. In terms of resilience, these research findings on the environment’s importance means that you yourself can do much to optimize your stress response.
In addition, Southwick and Charney state that people who are physically active react with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Also, mindful meditation allows the prefrontal cortex to recover more quickly from negative emotions. (In Emotional Resilience, Part 2, we will learn more about different methods and ways to increase emotional resilience.)
A final note: Not all stress is bad, and from this viewpoint emotional resilience becomes doubly important.
Without deadlines, not much work would get done. Without the pressure of competition, athletes would perform at lower levels. Without the knocks and bruises that life deals us, we would not learn quite as much about ourselves and our capabilities. Over time, we become like a beautiful old tall ship sailing the world’s oceans—our sails may be mended, our hull’s wood sun-bleached, our anchors speckled with rust—but we have more experience and know that we are resilient enough to weather the inevitable storms.
- Harry Barry, Emotional Resilience: How to Safeguard your Mental Health (Spring, 2018).
- Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, “What is Emotional Resilience and How to Build it?” www.positivepsychology.com/emotional-resilience/
- Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (Mariner Books, 2016).
- Steven Southwick, “The Science of Resilience,” Huffington Post, www.huffpost.com/entry/trauma-resilience_b_1881666
- Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 This break-down and description of skills is based on Harry Barry, Emotional Resilience: How to Safeguard your Mental Health (Spring, 2018).
 Steven Southwick, “The Science of Resilience,” Huffington Post, Huffpost.com/entry/trauma-resilience_b_1881666